Yesterday, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a press release detailing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s announcement and presentation of a new campaign, “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving.” The June 7, 2012 release identifies a $2.4 million pilot project that will include two states: Delaware and California.

Official portrait of United States Secretary o...
Official portrait of United States Secretary of Department of Transportation Ray LaHood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no wonder that the agency uses strong language to describe the increasing hazards on the road that inattentive drivers pose to others, especially when they use hand held cell phones. Calling the current state of things a “distraction epidemic,” the agency hopes to curtail dangerous behaviors behind the wheel with a comprehensive strategy. DOT’s press release states the pilot project has outlined steps to pass more laws, address technology, and help stakeholders take action. The $2.4 million in federal support for California and Delaware will expand the agency’s “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” pilot enforcement campaign to reduce distracted driving, the agency says.

Secretary LaHood states that campaigns have made progress over the last three years in raising awareness, but people are still dying and still being injured by distracted drivers, and he wants to put an end to it. Identifying personal responsibility for putting down the phone as a good first step, LaHood wants to see more done, such as passing strong laws, educating young drivers, and seeing those young drivers start their own campaigns to end distracted driving.

Included in the plan, LaHood and DOT encourage the remaining 11 states without distracted driving laws to enact and enforce legislation against this behavior. They also call out the auto industry to reduce the distractions that devices in vehicles cause. Driver education professionals are encouraged to use new curriculum materials to educate novice drivers about distracted driving. Citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), DOT and LaHood explain that drivers under the age of 25 are two to three times more likely than older drivers to send text messages or emails while driving.

LaHood announced California and Delaware were selected to receive the federal support for the pilot project, and the agency will examine how much of an impact increased law enforcement and high-profile public education campaigns will have on distracted driving. Pointing to the success of a national campaign like “Click It or Ticket,” the agency hopes to change another unsafe driving behavior.

California’s Sacramento valley region, covering eight counties and 3.8 million residents, will be included in the pilot project, which begins in fall 2012. Smaller-scale demonstration projects conducted in 2011 in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York resulted in dramatic declines in the communities tested, the agency says. Texting dropped by 72 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse.

On in every ten fatalities on our nation’s roadways in 2010 involved a distracted driver. 3,092 people died as a result of a distraction-affected crash, the agency says. And if that’s not alarming enough, the agency cites a finding from NHTSA’s first nationally-representative phone survey on driver distraction, which came out earlier this year, that reveals more than three-quarters of drivers said they are willing to answer calls on all, most, or some trips. Astoundingly, respondents in the survey admitted that there were few driving situations in which they would not use the phone or text, but these same respondents said they felt unsafe when they were passengers and a person driving them was texting. The respondents who said they would phone or text while driving said they supported bans on texting and cell phone use. Almost all the respondents in the survey—90% overall, according to the press release from DOT—reported they considered a driver who was sending or reading a text message or emails as very unsafe. There seems to be a disconnect there. Perhaps those drivers engaging in risky behavior, such as texting or emailing or calling on a cell phone, think they can do it better than others and wouldn’t become a statistic.

Recognition of the dangers of distracted driving has sunk in with some drivers, even those who persist in using a cell phone anyway while they are driving. Perhaps it is strong enforcement they are looking for as a deterrent to risky behavior. We hope the DOT’s campaign is a success, as distracted drivers imperil more than just themselves.

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